Lack of respect for frontline role

FrontlineFrontline gardaí go into the unknown yet their contribution is undervalued in their remuneration, argues John O’Keeffe


THE British prime minister, David Cameron recently claimed that more police in the UK now work on the ‘frontline’ than at any other time in the Force’s history. Independent analysis would appear to support this proposition. Some 83% operate almost exclusively on ‘frontline’ duties and of these 41% are considered ‘pure frontline officers’; attending 999 call outs, traffic accidents and patrolling neighbourhoods. In Ireland, estimates suggest 42% work the core, regular shift pattern.

The uniformed officer who spends most of his or her time solely pushing a pen is becoming a rare sight in the UK, as indeed in Ireland, such duties now having been mainly transferred to civilian staff.

The situation is a mindset issue; we have become accustomed to junior members with all their energy, enthusiasm and youth working on the frontline until relieved by new entrants, so that they can progress to other areas and develop their careers. However, the zero recruitment and changing needs have stopped this process and made visible certain anomalies within the system. Those who left the frontline through promotion automatically qualified for an increase in earnings too. This places great emphasis and incentive for those on the frontline to seek promotion. This is not sustainable. It remains true that our policing model is based on a system where four out of five members will remain at garda rank throughout their careers. Society needs frontline active operational police most, and so this should be incentivised and rewarded as a priority.

Individual police forces in the UK may not have not got everything right in recent years but notwithstanding their own swingeing cuts and recreational summer rioting, they appear to be moving in the right direction when it comes to “neighbourhood interfacing.”

Cut to the Republic. Here the coalface of policing has been decimated and as recently as last month frontline garda units were warned that the financial resources allocated to the force for the rest of this year would be further depleted. Gone are regular patrols in many areas and large public events are now being policed by an ever-dwindling number of dedicated, if demoralised, frontline officers.

“In An Garda Síochána, the further away you are from operational duties where physical and mental injury may be threatened on a daily basis, the better paid you are…”

Many members who joined the Force during the accelerated recruitment campaign, like many ambitious young people, would expect to have been promoted promptly – and yet this will not have happened and the prospect of such will have diminished. This has a negative impact upon morale – and yet, if the frontline service was properly valued monetarily to compensate for the risks, and reward the necessary adaptability to overcome the difficulties frequently encountered, the nature of the service would change. Even sceptical politicians will at least pay lip service to the notion that without these gardaí Irish society would be more lawless than it already is.

Yet notwithstanding the groundswell of apparent regard for these members, they are still paid far less (in both real and relative terms) than those removed from operational danger. In An Garda Síochána, the further away you are from operational duties where physical and mental injury may be threatened on a daily basis, the better paid you are.

The same is of course also true for firefighters, nurses and ambulance personnel with one important difference – gardaí can often be expected to be some or all of the above, as well as law enforcement officers. And furthermore, any action can lead to scrutiny and investigation by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission that can be stressful and demanding; inversely punishing the most active members – because confrontation and complaint go hand in hand; effectiveness and accountability is a fine balance.

There appear to be two reasons why frontline gardai are paid less and so valued less than senior colleagues. Firstly, they are routinely confronted with the charge that their work is somehow ‘vocational” compared to others. This immediately means politicians can then abrogate all responsibility from offering them a living wage. In truth when the word ‘vocational’ is applied it actually now means ‘pay-cut’.

The idea that there is some notional value far beyond financial reward because you may actually want to help others is a risible one. It puts frontline emergency personnel in the invidious position of being unable to argue a case for a living wage without then being accused of a form of moral treachery – generally by those who don’t give a care about others but expect the frontline to do so on their behalf.

The second reason why front line gardaí are so financially disregarded is because there is a notion floating about in the political mindset, that going into the unknown, unarmed every day and night is somehow less valuable. How is confronting a rioter, or burglar, or junkie with a blood filled syringe, not as worthwhile as strategising? No one is suggesting that policing is not a broad church with many disparate elements that need to work hand in hand to make a modern effective service. The disgrace remains in that those who give the most, should consistently be regarded the least.

The Scandinavian model is often one that is quoted when considering best criminal justice practices and there is a reason for that – it works. In Sweden for example there is a collection of government bodies that deal with police matters. In total there are some 20,000 police officers supported by a further 8,500 civilian staff. Frontline police are not only then freed to do their work, they are respected and so paid accordingly – in Sweden they are the best paid – and that is the way it should be.

In Scandinavia it is often remarked that everyone is equally valued and this is why their societies remain so cohesive. In Ireland, lack of regard and respect for huge swathes of the population is the order of the day and nowhere is this more acutely felt than in the frontline of policing.

The government needs to sit down with all stakeholders – and that must include frontline gardaí – and review the way we approach coalface policing in this country. It is indisputable that those who take the greatest risks on behalf of our society remain the least rewarded. The benefits of real recognition of their work, not just to these gardaí and their families, but to society, would be immeasurable.

Frontline gardaí do not need to be patronised, cajoled or patted on the back. They do not need their earnings decimated, nor do they need politicians or senior gardaí telling them things will get better – from the place they are now sitting, the amount of improvements needed to get their service back near the place it once was, remains unreachable.

What they do deserve, however, is respect. Respect for the abuse they have to put up with on the streets, respect for the patient way they deal with the public and listen to their complaints and respect for the manner in which they break the news to a parent that their son or daughter has just been killed in a car accident. This respect cannot be evidence with political platitudes or senior colleagues meaningless statements of support. The only way that government can show true respect and worth to frontline gardai for what they do for Irish society is to reward them in their pockets accordingly compared to others – no more, no less.

John O’Keeffe is Director, Institute of Criminology & Policing Studies, City Colleges and Criminologist, Trinity College, Dublin.

For full and in-depth coverage, see the current printed edition of Garda Review.

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